What Makes a Good Policy Brief?

There are quite a few resources available on how to write a policy brief, but I still find that students struggle somewhat with this assignment, in part because it is such a different writing task than they usually face. A part of me always feels a little bit guilty for assigning it, too, because the truth is that I just don’t find them all that useful in actual lobbying; at least on the issues on which I mostly advocate, policymakers are more interested in the political ramifications than a set of factual arguments. So I found myself using talking points, lists of endorsers, myth v. fact sheets, and other materials, slightly less dense with facts. Still, I think that the process of researching and writing a policy brief is a very important one for policy advocates; it forces us to familiarize ourselves with the existing information from multiple viewpoints, to hone our statement of the social problem, to clearly articulate why our policy option is the best one, and to identify those messages that will be the most concise and coherent as we move forward with the campaign. And, of course, instructors (like me!) keep assigning policy briefs, so students will need to keep grappling with this exercise, at least in the classroom setting.

Some thoughts on what makes a good policy brief, based on my research into others’ instructions for policy brief preparation, my work preparing dozens of briefs, and my review of many more dozens of student and organizational briefs.

The best policy briefs:

  • Are short, of course, which pretty much goes without saying, and also a little repetitive, because policymakers may just scan the page, so you want them to have multiple opportunities to notice your best points. Pictures, graphs, and other visuals (along with lots of white space) are also good.
  • Use common terms, spell out every acronym, and are in general highly accessible to people who are not familiar at all with the policy issue. You’ll create other documents (like talking points) for your hardcore advocates; policy briefs are primarily used by those with relatively little context or additional information, so they need to be able to stand alone.
  • Address a social problem. I know, it sounds elementary, but I have seen ‘policy briefs’ where the reader is still not exactly sure that anything is really wrong, or why the supposed social problem is, indeed, problematic. You don’t need to state that the world will come to an end if your policy isn’t adopted, certainly, but you need enough research to tell a convincing story about why change is needed.
  • Clearly state a policy preference, and why it is the best solution to the problem (as outlined). Social workers sometimes try to play too nice, and to give too much credence to every possible alternative, as though there were no really bad ideas. Of course there are, plenty, and too many of them are making their way into law! Say what should be done about the problem, and clearly and persuasively explain why it is the THE best option. If you want to outline, briefly, a couple of the alternatives (and this is a good idea if there are 1 or more that are ‘catching on’), and then why they are inferior, that’s fine, but just don’t backhandedly advocate for those alternatives. If you think people will have trouble figuring out which policy choice you’re for, then only talk about yours.
  • When in doubt, cite. Social work students get hung up on this, but ignore APA and use footnotes abundantly. Everything that’s even somewhat questionable should be cited, and make sure that you’re using reputable sources; it might be a good idea to have someone a bit neutral look at your sources to give you this opinion.
  • Follow this general format (unless, of course, your instructor has different instructions): introduction/problem statement (should include the scope and scale of the problem, and why it’s bad–you’ll want to judiciously include facts that document this, and this might be the place for a very compelling (and brief) story); status quo policy situation (you can use this section to expand somewhat on the problem statement, since, if you’re advocating change, the current policy must be part of the problem); your policy recommendation (with supporting arguments as to why it is best); refutation of alternative policy arguments (if you’ve decided this is necessary); and conclusion (restating the problem and the solution).

    Students often tell me that they want more examples of policy briefs, so, this year, I obtained permission from some of my students to share their well-done policy briefs. The links to these documents are below, along with my comments about what I find particularly appealing about each one, and the authors’ names. All of these students received their MSW degrees from the University of Kansas in May 2009–congratulations to them, and I look forward to seeing more of their advocacy as their careers progress! Thank you, too, for allowing me to share these.

    If anyone has a policy brief that they’d like to share, for comments or critique, please do so. Do you have resources that you’ve found particularly helpful in preparing policy briefs? When have you used a policy brief in an advocacy context to great effect?

    Sarah Brokenleg: This one is visually very easy to read and attractive. She makes her main points early and repeats them, and she covers the three main policy subtopics. My favorite part about this brief is that she refutes the main counterargument without giving it any real emphasis, which I think is very effective.
    Statewide Smoking Ban

    Kavya Velagapudi and April Rand: They were very specific about their audience–Lawrence-area policymakers, and the brief is very targeted towards them. I like that they highlighted the programs that would be negatively affected without turning it into a ‘policymaking by anecdote’ situation. We debated the inclusion of the revenue-enhancement alternatives, because I tend to argue that we should never be the ones backed into figuring out where to come up with the money, but they felt, from their conversations with decision-makers, that they really needed to put something on the table, and I respect that.
    Alcohol Tax Revenues

    Adam Timberlake, Susila Gabbert, Anna Giles: Adam did the design work on this, and what I like most about this particular brief is that I know that it is an issue that is very close to his heart, but he presents it in a way that is compelling but still very professional and well-researched. At the end, he makes the three main points related to his policy brief. He doesn’t back away from the ‘soft’ benefit of healthier communities, but he doesn’t rely solely on that. And I love the way that he incorporated the housing in the background.
    Housing Trust Fund

  • 25 responses to “What Makes a Good Policy Brief?

    1. Thank you so much for posting this! I’m an undergraduate trying to make a brief for a local non-profit. This was immensely helpful.

      • I’m so glad! How’s it going?

        • Hello Melinda K. Lewis,
          I need help and would like to ask if you know of any organization in the Northern NJ area who could assist me in writing a policy brief. My area of interest is in helping children. I am looking for a person who would mentor me in this process and hopefully submit a brief. Is there any person or organization who could assist me at this time -Feb 21-March 11, 2012-? clifital@aol.com.

        • Hello! I don’t know of an organization in your area–I’m really not familiar with it at all. Are you looking to submit a brief to the state legislature? What policy are you trying to influence? What is your defined social problem? I’d say, in general, you want to find an organization working in your area of interest and see what kind of policy research might help them, so that they would be willing to help you with the process, since there aren’t really any organizations I know of (besides higher educational institutions) that are in the business of helping with policy briefs more generally. But many organizations would be eager for a dedicated volunteer researcher, and willing to invest in mentoring you in that case. Good luck!

        • What organizations would you say would be eager for a volunteer resesarcher who would be willing to invest in mentoring me? I have to write a policy brief. The topic should be about human development or health related. I am interested in helping children and seniors. I am open to any other policy brief suggestions. Would you be willing to review anything I came up with? Do you write or teach about policy briefs? Thank you for getting back to me. I am hoping that you can provide more specifics about which organizations or possibly who could assist me in creating a policy brief.

        • I don’t know of any organizations in your area, but I think finding some that are working in your issue interest would be the place to start. I’m in Kansas and not familiar with the landscape there. And I’m sorry, but I teach a full load of classes in addition to my consulting practice, so I don’t have time to review other students’ work. But hopefully you found some content here that is helpful!

    2. Your advice and comments on what a Policy Brief should contain and the examples given were very helpful in my summer Social Work classes. We’ve been through writing the analysis, but I was stumped mainly because of the very different format and presentation of the information needed. Seeing ” a policy brief in action”‘ as in your examples, gave me a perspective on how to put my information together in the most effective manner. Thank you! And Thank You to your writers for letting us view their Policy Briefs.

      • I’m so glad that you found them helpful! I would think that approaching an assignment like a policy brief could be particularly challenging in a summer class format; I’ve always found that condensed schedule to be a bit of a struggle! I’m always looking for updated examples of good policy briefs, so if any of your students would like to submit theirs, I’d be happy to include them in a future update post. Thank you again for your feedback!

        • Ollie RaDell Sibley

          Once again a “Thank ” for the wealth of information you make available to students like myself. I find I save nearly every e-mail newsletter since I subscribed and now that I will soon be entering the last few of my classes I’ve referred back to them over and over during each new class. The easy but professional style of the Policy Briefs you feature was once again invaluable this semester. My final assignment was an analysis and brief on inadequacies in or complete lack of programs at my University available for Non-Traditional students like myself and how our educational success is hindered. Having your examples boosted my confidence and my courage in writing and submitting these assignments.
          Sincerely, Ollie RaDell Sibley

        • That is the best comment that I could receive–I am SO glad that you find the resources helpful! What were some of the policy suggestions that you identified to help nontraditional students succeed academically? I wish you all the best in your career! –melinda

    3. Thanks for writing this article. This is an area I am very interested – I wonder if you have ever come across any research testing the effectiveness of the policy brief format for changing Knowledge, attitudes, Behaviour or the reader?

      • Thanks for your comment! That’s a great question–I think the evidence is clear that information alone (as is usually contained in a policy brief) is insufficient to change people’s beliefs and, certainly, their behavior. The value of a policy brief, then, or of any other policy communication, is in how it can be used by advocates as a tool to do what we know does work–connect new information to what people already value, and show how there is an imperative for action (along a certain approach) in order to preserve those valued aims/goods. We fail not only when a given policy brief is inadequate, then, but when we presume that simply providing people with information will, in any real way, be sufficient to shape what they think and believe and do. How have you used policy briefs as part of a persuasive strategy in a policy campaign?

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    5. Thank you for your encouragement. In answer to your question, the policies regarding student housing at my University are ambiguous at best. For instance: University policy states that all students with less than 60 credit hours MUST reside in residence housing unless they apply for and are granted a waiver. However, there are no provisions made for single parents or married couples. The issue simply wasn’t addressed. Also our campus spends a lot of time recruiting based on the “campus experience”. This includes not only living on campus, but participating in the many organizations and clubs. I know myself as well as many other Non traditional students would love to get extra credit for participating in various activities sponsored by the University but there is no day care, and statistics show that students such as myself commute roughly an hour one way. Maintaining A’s, taking the maximum hours each semester ( I’m not getting any younger) and being a single mother to three boys precludes participating in ANYTHING. I have trouble scheduling tutoring in Math. As I said in my analysis, there is no support system for us to lean on to help ensure we succeed academically. We are overlooked and it saddens me because as an “older” student I feel we offer valuable insight and perspective to our classmates. Coming back to school at almost 40 makes my education even more valuable to me than it was when I was 18. I’m certainly more dedicated. I know every policy can’t change to my ideal, but non traditional students deserve to at least have our needs acknowledged and addressed. Even if it’s by saying NO in black and white. I apologize for the length. Sincerely, Ollie RaDell Sibley

      • Wow–what a disturbing state of events, but thank you so much for sharing! It sounds like there are a few different policies (related, but with separate policy ‘targets’, in terms of the people who have the power to change them and the systems that are most implicated) that need to be addressed, around residence halls and academic policies (like valuing life experiences and not expecting students to participate in student activities). And by just raising these questions, you’re going to be changing these systems by bringing new ideas to their attention. Especially as a social worker, I am interested in how we can build a profession that reflects the populations with which we work, which means that we MUST recruit diverse students into higher education. Your experiences certainly suggest that we have a long way to go! Thank you for reading, and please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help from here!

    6. Ollie RaDell Sibley

      Thank you for such a generous offer. I will definitely take you up on it this fall. When I wrote the first policy brief last summer I thought I would never want to work in areas requiring me to fight for change on a large scale. I’ve since learned that it’s hard work but so very worth it. My focus has certainly broadened!

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    8. Hi, I am a first year student from The University of Birmingham.
      I have a policy brief due next month and it is the first time I am doing it. This article has been very helpful.
      I have to focus on an area related to the transition to University and I am hoping to do my policy brief on the difficulties faced by international students. I was wondering if I should be focusing on just one issue faced by international students or several issues ?

      • I’m so glad! I think, truly, that you could approach it either way–the danger, of course, in including too many different issues, is that it can be harder to make a really compelling case for THE policy change you want, but, if you narrow your focus too much, you run the risk of oversimplifying your issue, such that you could end up with ‘solutions’ that don’t really solve your problem. If you can knit the different issues together well, especially if there is a policy intervention that addresses more than one of them, then your brief may actually be strengthened by being a bit broader. I know that’s not a very definitive answer, but I have definitely seen briefs that have succeeded from both approaches. Good luck!

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